Earlier this year, eighth-grade social studies teacher Molly Norton was explaining the meaning of asylum to students at Washington Middle School after a student asked about the ICE detention centers they had seen on the news.
As Norton discussed how refugees are granted asylum, one student asked: "Does that mean kids shouldn't sleep in cages? And that kids should not be separated from their families? Those seem like basic human rights to me."
Questions like these aren’t uncommon for teachers. However, given the political climate, some teachers are finding that it can be difficult to know how to discuss current events.
"As a teacher, I try to remain as neutral as possible because it is a tricky position to be in,” Norton said. “But I think that having these hard and sometimes 'controversial' conversations and asking kids to think critically to reach their own opinions and conclusions is the best way I can get them to grow as people."
Whether it’s state, national or global issues, many teachers are responding to divisive politics by presenting students with the facts and encouraging them to think critically and form their own opinions.
Allie McFarland, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at C.S. Porter Middle School who is currently on maternity leave, said there are curriculum standards for her to tie current events into her lessons on American history. From there, she said students make the connection between class material and current events. “Often, a kid will go, 'Hey, isn’t that what was on the news last night?' or 'Isn’t that what people are arguing about on Facebook?' ” McFarland said.
McFarland’s students have brought up topics such as President Trump’s proposed wall on the southern border, free speech and Twitter use, Supreme Court decisions and immigration policies. To provide students with context on these issues beyond course curriculum, McFarland uses tools such as CNN 10, a 10-minute nonpartisan news show designed for a young audience, and Upfront Magazine, which provides articles and lesson plans such as “Why the Midterm Elections Matter,” “Should Congress Have Term Limits,” and “The Opioid Epidemic.”
Norton, who also teaches English, said students have brought up the topic of refugees in response to a novel they’re reading about a child forced to flee Vietnam in the 1970s and resettle in Alabama called "Inside Out and Back Again" by Thanhha Lai. Using the new English curriculum MCPS implemented this year, Norton’s class discussed universal themes of the refugee experience and questions students raised about immigration and ICE.
McFarland noted that many of her students' opinions are influenced by their family’s political views. “They have a lot of questions about 'Well, my dad says this' but, 'my uncle says that,' '' she said. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with students, she uses these moments to teach students to form their own opinions.
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McFarland works with librarians to teach students how to fact-check and analyze their sources of information, which has led students to fact-check each other. “A lot of times one student will cite a fact and somebody else will look at them and go, 'Where did you hear that?'” she said. “We often say, 'Let’s Google it,' in the middle of class and then we’ll evaluate the website. That’s part of it, too. Is it a government website or is it run by a lobbyist group?”
Lindsay Thompson, a social studies teacher at Hellgate High School, also pushes students to analyze their sources of information by having them break down campaign commercials to learn who is funding them and verify the statements they contain.
Thompson is currently teaching a unit about elections in preparation for the upcoming midterms. The unit covers political parties, voting, the electoral process, interest groups and mass media and public opinion. For one assignment, students create infographics that compare and contrast candidates and their stances on important Montana issues.
Thompson has her classes watch and analyze presidential or senatorial debates. Every presidential campaign year, she and other teachers organize a mock election for students to vote for federal, state and major local offices. “The government teachers usually try to get this unit complete prior to election day so that students who can vote feel like they are prepared to cast their ballots understanding the system and the candidates running,” she said.
She also encourages students to engage in debates, both as an assignment where they “run for office” and in classroom discussions. When it comes to current events such as President Donald Trump's rally in Missoula or the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she encourages students to share their opinions respectfully in a teacher-led forum.
“We work hard at Hellgate to provide an unbiased environment for students to develop into thoughtful citizens and future voters who can articulate their opinions based on verifiable fact and evidence,” she said.
McFarland said she’s never had students be disrespectful to each other, which she attributes to ground rules established before class discussions. “We talk about how it’s important to listen to each other’s viewpoints, to evaluate the accuracy of what each side is saying and to know that we can respect different opinions,” she said.
“Even if we don’t both agree that the oil pipeline should go through, we can listen to what each other have to say and say, 'That’s a good point,' or just say, 'I disagree with your beliefs on that,' and still be respectful.”